Rainforest Solutions Project

Promoting conservation and economic alternatives in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest


First Nations’ new reality arrives

February 10, 2006

Nine years ago it was called the Midcoast Timber Supply area, and the government’s interest was in seeing it logged.

Environmental groups were a nuisance, or in the words of then premier Glen Clark, “enemies of British Columbia.”

And First Nations were pretty much irrelevant to any land use discussion.

Flash forward to this week for a reminder of just how extraordinarily things have changed.

For starters, it’s now the Great Bear Rainforest, the clever name coined by the environmental groups back in 1996 when they wanted to win support for protecting the area.

When Premier Gordon Campbell announced a new land-use deal for the region he shared the platform — and lots of praise — with First Nations and the same environmentalists who had been so maligned.

The new reality has arrived. First Nations have established a legal right to a say in decisions that affect land they are claiming as traditional territories.

Environmental groups have built political clout within the province, and shown a consistent ability to marshal international support to put economic pressure on industry and government.

After a bumpy start — especially with First Nations — the Liberal government has accepted the new reality, and showed with this announcement an ability to make the most of it.

On the day Campbell announced the new plan, it got big favourable news coverage across North America and around the world. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune and hundreds of others ran stories.

Britain’s Channel 4, in a typical coverage, ran film of beautiful scenery and playful bears and hailed “a major blow for preserving the planet’s wildlife.”

In terms of tourism promotion, figure a multimillion-dollar PR coup. The government’s communication shop — with big help from the environmental groups, who have excellent press contacts — made the most of the opportunity.

The local impact of the land use plan is tougher to sort out.

The plan completes a process begun under the NDP. It covers a huge stretch of the coast, from just north of Powell River to Alaska. About one-third of the land will be protected from development.

The rest will be open to commercial activities, including logging, but under a new Ecosystem Based Management regimen. Committees will review plans for each area, balancing environmental protection and the economic benefits and losses from any planned activities.

The forest industry was represented in the land-use talks, and at the announcement. For the companies, any move towards certainty is valuable after all this time.

There are costs to this kind of agreement.

For starters, B.C. has put up $30 million for a new First Nations’ economic development fund, and hopes the Harper government will match it. Environmental groups have raised another $60 million, mostly from U.S. foundations, for a First Nations fund to help with environmental issues.

All in, it will be $120 million. A lot of money, but less if it’s considered a payment for allowing resources to be removed from lands claimed by First Nations while the treaty process continues.

The increased protection areas will also cost money. The annual allowable cut for the region had been estimated at four million cubic metres. Now, it will fall to about 3.1 million, a potential loss of jobs and government revenue.

There are benefits, too. Certainty means more investment on a range of fronts.

The reality is that there was no alternative. Everyone involved recognized a compromise would have to be reached or nothing would happen, and government brokered the deal.

It’s not likely a model that will be repeated across the province. Most land-use issues are less complex and polarized.

But, on the big issues, things such as coal-bed methane, offshore gas and fish farms, expect some similar resolution of the inevitable conflicts.

The world has changed. B.C. has no choice but to acknowledge the new reality, and make the best of it.